The Mansfield Bar: How a Celebrity Death Changed Auto Safety

On June 29, 1967, a Hol­ly­wood bomb­shell and two oth­ers were killed in a gris­ly crash while dri­ving between Biloxi and New Orleans when the car were rid­ing in hit the back of a slow­er-mov­ing truck, the dri­ver’s vision impaired by a cloud of pes­ti­cide sprayed from a vehi­cle. A sex sym­bol who owned her star pow­er, Mans­field was only 34 at the time of her death. The crash and its wide­ly pub­li­cized after­math led to a call for changes in the design of big rigs to pre­vent oth­er crash­es from hav­ing sim­i­lar­ly fatal results.

After Mans­field­’s death, pho­tos showed the crum­pled Buick Elec­tra with its top prac­ti­cal­ly sheared off by the under­side of the truck, with an object that could be inter­pret­ed as a blonde head amidst the wreck­age. Although, con­trary to pop­u­lar rumors, Mans­field was not in ‘decap­i­tat­ed’ in the crash, the actress died from mas­sive skull frac­tures sus­tained as the car slid under the much larg­er truck. The two oth­er adults, col­lege stu­dent Ron Har­ri­son and Mans­field­’s lawyer, Samuel S. Brody, also seat­ed in the front seat of the car, and Mans­field­’s dog, died as well. Mans­field­’s young chil­dren, includ­ing Mariska Har­gi­tay, who were all seat­ed in the back­seat, sur­vived the crash.

The hor­ri­fy­ing after­math high­light­ed the dan­ger of large trucks and trail­ers to oth­er vehi­cles on the road. At the time, there was a require­ment in place for rear guards, but the rule was loose­ly enforced and there were no stan­dards for strength or effec­tive­ness. After the Nation­al Traf­fic Admin­is­tra­tion (NHTSA) was estab­lished in 1970, the agency rec­om­mend­ed the instal­la­tion of rear under­ride guards—or, as they lat­er became known in the Unit­ed States, ‘Mans­field bars’—on large trucks. The NHTSA with­drew its pro­pos­al to man­date under­ride guards under pres­sure from the truck­ing indus­try and new­ly elect­ed Pres­i­dent Rea­gan. The require­ment for rear guards was final­ly imple­ment­ed in 1998.

Today, under­ride guards are still not manda­to­ry on the sides of trucks and trail­ers, and road safe­ty advo­cates con­tin­ue to urge reg­u­la­tors to strength­en safe­ty mea­sures to pro­tect peo­ple in small­er cars. The NHTSA esti­mates that over 400 peo­ple died in under­ride crash­es in 2021, while oth­er experts believe the num­ber to be high­er. Accord­ing to a recent arti­cle by Kea Wil­son, the NHTSA data vast­ly under­es­ti­mates the num­ber of caused by car pas­sen­gers being trapped under trucks and excludes pedes­tri­an, cyclist, and motor­cy­clist deaths, esti­mat­ed at over 100 deaths per year. Wilson’s arti­cle also points out that few states under­ride events on crash reports, mak­ing the issue hard­er to quan­ti­fy.

View from back of white tractor trailer on road with rear underride  guards
Rear under­ride guards are now manda­to­ry on trac­tor trail­ers in the Untied States. Image Cred­it: Kir­ill Gorlov | Adobe Stock

Jayne Mans­field­’s death was­n’t the only celebri­ty tragedy to draw atten­tion to road safe­ty reforms. TE Lawrence, the leg­endary name­sake of the film Lawrence of Ara­bia, died of injuries sus­tained in a motor­cy­cle crash in 1935. His death prompt­ed one of his doc­tors, neu­ro­sur­geon Hugh Cairns, to start advo­cat­ing for crash hel­mets, even­tu­al­ly lead­ing the British Army to require its mem­bers to wear hel­mets start­ing in 1941. The doc­tor con­tin­ued to research the effects of crash hel­mets, even­tu­al­ly lead­ing to more wide­spread adop­tion of hel­met wear­ing and reg­u­la­tions.

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